Thursday, 10 September 2009

Lockerbie: business as usual

It was sometime in 1992 when the tape arrived on my desk. Before the days of plug-in hard disks and easy-use PCs, data would be recorded onto magnetic tapes which was loaded on massive reel-to-reel machines. The tape in question was on blue plastic, seven inches in diameter. The rim was heavily broken with the pieces being held in a plastic bag. The label was from a UK gas well and its original destination was head office in Houston. It never reached Texas because it was freight onboard Pan Am 103, flying on the night of the 21st of December, 1988.

It is odd how one can be just on the edge of large events such as Lockerbie. Seventeen years later, that feeling has returned to me. A couple of months ago I was in the Scottish Parliament when the First Minister, Alex Salmond, was being quizzed about the possible release of Abdelbaset Al Megrahi, the Libyan who was found guilty of the bombing. Despite assurances from Salmond that the decision would be left to the sole discretion of the Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, the First Minister’s word was widely disbelieved in the chamber. It is understood that Salmond rules the SNP with a rod of iron, with MacAskill been as likely to be able to act in a independent manner as the Westminster Cabinet would have been free to act under the leadership of Tony Blair. In other words, not very free at all.

Anyway, Al Megrahi is free now and at home. Both Salmond and Prime Minister Gordon Brown are swearing until blue in the face that it has nothing to do with oil contracts. Both must be confident that there is no “smoking gun” – nothing that can link the release to oil contracts. Of course, it is entirely coincidental that the UK is the major oil producer in Northern Europe, with most of the industry and jobs being based in Scotland. So my ears didn’t prick up at all when I was in a casual conversation this week, in a furniture store of all places, with a lady whose husband is also working in the oil industry. He is currently in Libya, planning a major new gas pipeline between North Africa and Europe.

This would make sense how? The obvious answer is Russia. Over recent winters, Putin and Medvedev have not been shy about using gas as a political and economic club to wield over the neighbours’ heads. Europe urgently needs another supplier.

America has been understandably outraged about all this. I would have more sympathy with their view if American companies had not continued to trade with Libya during the 1990s. It was widely known within the industry that a lot of business done under the Tunisian accounts was really work which originated in Libya. If managers were needed for a meeting in Tripoli, the road distance is about 500km; not a distance for a regular commute but close enough for an overnight stay. And yes, the authorities in the USA would have been aware of such activity. There seemed to be a fair amount of CIA activity when I was there.

Everybody will give lip-service to the victims and their families. But it looks like their needs are very much second-place to the real-politick of the situation. It may be that justice itself is completely absent. Not only is this a case of a convicted mass-murderer receiving mercy, there has always been doubts hanging over the conviction itself. It was claimed recently by a guest on the Today Programme that the sole eyewitness against Al Megrahi, the Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, had subsequently been resettled in Australia under a new identity and had received payments from the US government to the value of seven million dollars. That is some witness protection scheme.

Seen in the rather ghastly light above, it is little wonder that Gordon Brown has been unwilling to speak on the matter. If it had been only this topic where he has attempted to keep silent, one would have been perhaps been more understanding. But recently Brown has been quiet on all subjects. This is a sign of a leadership dying on its feet. Brown has no new initiatives and can only react to events over which the Labour government is too tired to even attempt to manage.

Media commentators have been advising people to put on their cynical hats when dealing with the entire business. Sadly I cannot advise you any different.